I have always admired the atmosphere and moodiness created by low key photography. There is something surreally spectacular to a well shot, low key, wildlife photograph. Perhaps it is because the subject stands out very well against the totally underexposed background, but to me a well shot low key photograph presents mystery and atmosphere in an intertwined package.

Unlike normal daylight wildlife photography, where the aim is to properly expose the whole frame, including the subject, the aim of low key photography is to properly expose the subject, or in some cases only certain parts of the subject, while leaving the rest of the frame completely underexposed.

Low key photo of Lioness, lit up with spotlight

Low key lighting often makes use of only one key light source. In low key wildlife photography, that one light source is usually a spotlight, but a powerful torch, with a focused beam may also be used.

The perfect opportunity to take low key images of wildlife, is during night drives that is offered by the various National parks and game reserves, but I have also found that some opportunities may present themselves at night, in the camps itself. During a visit to Bateleur Camp in the Kruger National Park, such an opportunity presented itself.

As seasoned photographers are well aware, there are numerous factors that must come together for a decent photographic opportunity to present itself. Of these factors planning and reconnaissance is the most important. Another very important factor is spotting the opportunity, because it is only seldom that photographic opportunities arrive bashing down the front door. Most photographic opportunities whisper softly and it is only the attentive person, who looks and listens intently, that recognise these opportunities for what they are.

African Scops Owl in tree

During 2013, my family and I visited the Kruger National Park. Our visit included a four nights stay at the Bateleur bushveld camp. It was here where I experienced first hand how important it is to spot the opportunity. I was fast asleep at around 02:00 on the second night of our stay at Bateleur Camp, when I was awakened by the unmistakable call of a small bird known as, Otus senegalensis, or the African Scops Owlet. The unmistakable “Kroe …… Kroe …… Kroe” was clearly audible from inside the chalet, and was coming from very close nearby. From previous experience I knew that, should I now get up and go outside, in an attempt to try and photograph this little bird, it would most probably just keep quiet when it hears or sees me approaching, and it will most probably fly off, long before I reached it. I, however made a mental note of its presence in camp, and vowed to pursue this little owl the next morning.

I therefore promptly went back to sleep. We woke around 05:00 that morning and promptly departed on the compulsory early morning game drive, which was followed by a wholesome breakfast at around 10:00.

Now, it was the perfect time to start with the next phase of the operation, – reconnaissance. After breakfast I strolled around a tract of unspoiled bushveld that was fenced into the camp, scanning every tree trunk carefully, as I knew from previous experience that these little critters is known to perch tightly against tree trunks, during the day, where they will sit motionless, with their eyes tightly closed, and their ear tufts erect. Due to their amazing camouflage, they will blend into their surroundings expertly, becoming just another broken branch or a knobby part of the tree.

I searched about 20 minutes without success. As I reached the boundary fence of the camp, I slowly worked my way back in the direction of the chalet, when I tripped over some tree roots that were protruding above ground, and slightly lost my balance. I instinctively reached for the nearby Mopane tree trunk next to the path, but stopped short of touching it. “What if the Scops owl is perched in this tree? If I touch the tree that might disturb the owlet and it will most probably fly off!” I thought. I cautiously looked up into the Mopane tree, where my eyes were met by the staring eyes of the owlet I spent about half an hour searching for. He must have opened his eyes when he heard the movement beneath the tree, he was perched in, and I am convinced that if I indeed touched the tree, he would have flown off. I slowly retreated away from the tree, while keeping my eyes on the owlet. It stayed put.

I went back to the chalet to fetch my camera equipment and took a few daytime shots, for documentation purposes. I then set the next phase into motion – planning. The plan was to return to the Mopane tree, in which the Scops Owlet was perching, to get the best chance of capturing the shot.

African Scops Owlet sitting in tree at night lit with torch

The customary afternoon game drive was much shorter than usual, and we returned to camp long before gate closing time. The difficulty with low key wildlife lighting is that it is usually difficult for one person to take care of both the lighting and the photography, so I entrusted my wife with the rechargeable, handheld 1,000 000 candle power spotlight, while I mounted my Canon 100 – 400mm, f4.5 – 5.6 L USM Mark I Lens on my camera body. I attached a monopod to the lens collet, for extra stability, and off we went to the location where the Scops owlet was perching. We arrived at our destination before sunset and waited for it to turn dark, all the while watching every move the owlet made.

The following settings were dialed into the camera:

AWB, ISO: 1250 is a good starting point, Av, largest aperture available i.e the smallest number, in my case f 5.6, and the camera was set to spot metering. With these settings dialed into the camera, it achieved a shutter speed of 1/80 of a second, which was enough to prevent camera shake as the camera was attached to a monopod for extra stability.

Low key image of African Scops Owlet, half of its side lit up

By requesting my wife to provide lighting from different angles, different results were possible. We had quite an accommodating subject that presented us with close quarter opportunities for about seven minutes before it decided to depart.

Happy shooting! Images and text by Jan Saunders www.jansaunderswildlifephotography.com